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A jobless recovery and a lost generation

Jorge Blanco, 21, with his parents at his graduation from Loyola University Chicago.

TEXT OF STORY

Tess Vigeland: For college grads, the relief of getting that diploma is now morphing into fear about finding a job. It's a terrible time for experienced workers, so imagine if you don't have any.

Marketplace's Mitchell Hartman came to Chicago to take the pulse of today's young worker-wannabes.


Graduation presider: Sarah Jayne Bisterfeld, magna cum laude, Jorge Andres Blanco...

Mitchell Hartman: I'm way up in the cheap seats at Loyola University Chicago, watching a few hundred business school graduates get their diplomas. There's the cheers.

Sound of cheers and applause

The fist-bumps.

Student 1:Thank you. We done did it. We oughta take a picture...

And... The reality check.

Jorge Blanco: My name is Jorge Blanco, I'm 21 years old, coming out with a degree in marketing and sport management. And my initial plan in the job search is to get a job, because I don't have one right now.

I sat down to talk about jobs with Blanco and eight other seniors, a few days before graduation, at Loyola's Career Center.

Blanco: I can recall a specific dream I had, where if I made a winning free throw, I would get a job. And I missed the free throw with an airball.

Blanco and the others did just what they were supposed to in their senior year: E-mailed hundreds of resumes, networked furiously on LinkedIn and alumni.

Wanna know what they've landed?

Katie Schaff: I have been hired by an architectural boat tour here in Chicago and I will be working as a bartender.

Student 2: Moving back home to Kansas for... not sure.

Student 3: I am stuck in retail indentured servitude at Urban Outfitters.

Brian Rehme: I actually have an internship with a public relations firm in Chicago.

At least advertising major Brian Rehme got an actual position in his field. Of course, it's temporary, no guarantee the summer internship will turn into a fall job.

Darby Scism: Not only are they competing with all the other amazing universities in the city of Chicago...

Darby Scism heads up Loyola's Career Center.

Scism: ...But they're competing with people who have been laid off, who have three, five, seven, 10, 15 years of experience. I've heard from a few students, "You know, I'm not going to find anything anyway, so why even start looking now?"

Why? Because if history's any guide, coming right out of the gate into a terrible job market could leave these college grads at the back of the career pack for a long time.

Economist Lisa Kahn at the Yale School of Management.

Lisa Kahn: It's early in a career when workers should be doing a lot of learning about their job -- learning by doing, on-the-job training. Even if an unlucky college graduate could shift into a better job, they're extremely far behind, because they've missed out on a crucial couple of years.

And many of today's grads may never really catch up, says Kahn, becoming a kind of "lost generation." Kahn's been following the people who stumbled out of college into the deep recession of the early 1980s.

Kahn: If you wanted to add up their earnings losses for the first 20 years of their career, they're earning about $100,000 less.

And career advancement? It isn't just delayed -- it can stall out.

Kahn: Young workers are supposed to move jobs often, because that's how they get pay increases, that's often how they get promotions.

But the 1980s recession-newbies stayed put in lower-level positions, or didn't move around as much.

Kahn: They could be a little gun-shy to leave, because they were sort of scarred by the difficulty of finding a job the first time around. Being placed in a lower-level job in a worse firm, because they took whatever they could, they're not gaining the right skills to be able to move along to the better jobs.

And don't think any of this is lost on today's grads.

Schaff: I remember the first time I heard about those statistics.

That's Katie Schaff from Loyola. She's the one with the bartending job on the architecture tour boat.

Schaff: And I was with my parents at the time, and I did the total teenage thing of "you don't understand, you don't know what it's like." And they were like, "Actually, we graduated from college in the '70s, we totally understand."

And since the 70s, says Kahn, there's one thing stressed out young people have always done to deal with their bad timing.

Kahn: When there's an economic downturn, everybody wants to go back to school, because the opportunity cost is quite low. If you don't have a job, you might as well be in school.

To see where this leads, I head to Columbia College Chicago. It's a prestigious art school downtown. Jeffrey Allen's 26. He landed a good job after college teaching theater to kids, but one the recession began, he couldn't find steady work.

Jeffrey Allen: I'm always scrounging around for a job. I don't really foresee myself getting married, starting a family, "settling down" any time soon, just because I simply can't afford to.

Allen and some friends are hanging out at Columbia College's summer street festival. They're banging out verses on manual typewriter for a poetry slam, hosted by the school's writing program, which is where Allen has taken temporary refuge from the economy.

Sound of typewriter

Allen: I had a few jobs, then I got laid off, spent five months on unemployment and decided "This is stupid, I'm going back to grad school."

Hartman: And then you picked poetry.

Allen: Yes, and then I picked poetry.

Allen laughs

And who knows, in this economy, it just might work.

In Chicago, I'm Mitchell Hartman for Marketplace Money.

About the author

Mitchell Hartman is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Entrepreneurship Desk and also covers employment.

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